Creative writing – scaling the wall to productivity

(Originally posted 29th April 2013)

I read articles and hear people talk of writer’s block all the time. In the past, I have discussed my interpretation of the topic, but today I would like to think of the idea of writing a little more intimately, and think about what I call The Wall, or more accurately, The Walls. There are two of them every time I write. I’m going to tell you when they appear for me, and how I try to overcome their gargantuan interference in my daily writing goals!

I can break down my daily writing practices into three stages. I am going to share the three stages with you. See if you recognise any or maybe even all of the stages.

The first stage is The Sit-Down Stage (or SDS). It is something we all share as writers. Unless you write standing up, that is. I don’t recommend it as a spur to creativity. But ah, the joys of the SDS. I am enthusiastic, fresh, even excited about the work I am going to do. I’ve been looking forward to getting through some words and putting some time into my writing. I sit down at my desk, notes sprawled out, research ready, and everything goes swimmingly for the first hour.

But then I think: Hang on, I’ve been sat here for an hour, and I haven’t actually written anything yet!

If you’re like me, you’re probably nodding right now. I don’t write anything for the first hour because I’m normally doing the following:

a)    Reading the last few scenes I wrote.
b)    Editing (or ‘tweaking’) the last few scenes.
c)    Grounding myself in the surroundings of my story.
d)    Remembering those little plot details that are so easy to forget.
e)    Getting the voices of my characters into the front of my mind.

So, I do all of those things, and then comes Brick Wall Number One. I’ve done A-E (above), and now it’s time for me to be creative. But I have no switch marked ‘Creativity’ with a little on/off toggle. I hit a brick wall, head-on, and I stare blankly at the screen. Because we creative types can’t do our best stuff on demand. We need to be in the mood, in the right frame of mind etcetera (excuses ad infinitum?). Pre-ordained writing time slots don’t work. It’s not like saying ‘OK, I’ll paint that wall on Saturday morning and it will take two hours’. The wall might get painted, but the writing doesn’t always get written.

How to overcome Brick Wall Number One? Hmm, that’s a question. Some people pre-plot their whole novels in advance, right down to the last detail, before they even write a word. I don’t do that, because things are very fluid in the writing of a story of any length. That’s not to say I don’t have an A to B in my head. Most of the time I do, and I can loosely sketch scenes that get the characters from A to B . So I’ll write scruffy notes that I can discard after I finish writing scenes (although I keep thinking I should keep these so I can sign and sell them when I’m famous!), and I’ll write down pertinent things about a situation or how a character is feeling, or even what is probably going to happen, and that’ll go towards my bigger goal.

But what about the days when I don’t have any kind of notes and I’m going in blind? I mean, sure, I have a general idea of where the story is headed, but I don’t have anything else to aid me. When this is the case, scaling that first wall can be very tough. For me it is a matter of one word at a time. Grinding the gears inside my head and hoping I’m not producing garbage. Waiting for the inspiration to come or something to click. Waiting for the gears to run smoothly. I call this The Riddled with Self-Doubt Approach, and I’m sure you’ve experienced it. It’s the payback for the days when the words are flying from your fingertips! When I’m struggling in this way I can normally get down something like 750 words, before…

BRICK WALL NUMBER TWO. I see it coming. I tramp my foot on the brake. I scream internally. Then I hit it, and bang, it ain’t nice! I thought Brick Wall Number One was bad. This is even worse. It tends to come after about two hours of sitting at the old desk, and like I say, it’s harder to scale than the first one. This is because I’ve done A-E, I’ve scraped 750 words off the inside of my cranial cavity, and I feel tired. I want to watch TV, I want to read…basically, I want to be unchained from this hellbound desk.

I wonder where the freshness, the enthusiasm, the excitement, the drive and the focus went.

A lot of people think of writing as hobby-ish, and true, these people aren’t usually writers. They don’t understand that our vocation is very tiring, very draining, very exhausting.

Getting over Brick Wall Number Two is like one of those drills you see soldiers do on TV, or contestants on The Biggest Loser. But keep pushing, scale that bad boy, and when you drop on the other side you’ll be in The Garden of Eden, or The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or any other garden of creativity you can think of, because getting through that second obstacle, that second brick wall, and working and pushing when you feel done will often yield the best creative results.

What's on the other side?

What’s on the other side?


a)    You’ve spent a couple of hours in the world you created on the page. You are immersed. Stepping away now will mean acclimatising – All. Over. Again. Can you afford to do that when a little extra push might give you a thousand or two thousand words of your best work?

b)    Think of your character’s voices. Much like the point above this one, you have spent time getting into character, getting inside their heads, learning to be them. This is something you have to do every time you come to the writing of your story – even if the character is you! Do you want to step away before you’ve done your best, most inspired writing, only to have to get into character all over again? Or do you want to give it another hour in their shoes, and see how far you can walk in them?

c)    Plot lines – After a couple of hours of being immersed in the characters and their surroundings, you remember much more clearly the finer points of your plot. It is so easy to forget small things that can impact your story greatly, and even bigger things like calling one of your minor characters a completely different name (I’ve done this – thank god for editors!), forgetting something that has happened or was said, or thinking you’ve written something in when you haven’t and achieving the unenviable Glaring Omission.

d)    Sometimes the Muse is sleeping deeply, and it takes time to wake him or her. Getting over that second obstacle, that second brick wall, can reap some truly great rewards. I find that when I knuckle down, tune in and zone out from my immediate surroundings, I find myself stepping into my story, forgetting about word counts, time, and distractions around me. I become truly absorbed, and my muse suddenly is awoken by the sound of my fingers tapping away at the keyboard and thinks, ‘Wait a minute, the bastard’s doing it without me’. Fearful of losing her job, she yawns, stretches, and then rolls her sleeves up and gets to work right in there with me. Then my characters get real, my story comes to life, and I find the inspiration to send me in the right direction. The inspiration that links everything together.

Like I said though, I know it can be tough to get over the first wall, never mind the second. So here are three tips to help you reach your own personal garden of creativity, thus saving your sanity and helping you to create great stories.

1.    Continuity can reduce the time it takes to get over these walls. So, if you devote a couple of hours every day to writing, then you will become immersed and absorbed more quickly and with less effort – that’s the theory anyhow!

2.    Make the most of your Muse when she does appear. Scribble down plotlines, character notes, scene structures, and just about anything else you can think of. I’ve got scene by scene outlines for as much as thirty thousand words when these moments arrive, but treat them with the respect and awe they deserve, and don’t expect them to come too often. The Muse is often cruel.

3.    Tea. Drink lots of tea. Some writers smoke lots of tobacco, or take mind altering substances from alcohol right up to heroine. I used to be one of the tobacco variety of authors. But think of your fans! They want you to lead a full and healthy life so you can write lots of novels for them to read. Choose life, choose tea, and choose to get over that second wall every time.

I’ll see you on the other side.

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Posted in David McGowan
5 comments on “Creative writing – scaling the wall to productivity
  1. dustomundo says:

    Wow, utterly fantastic, thought-provoking, and inspiring! This has been very helpful, David. Thank you!!

  2. catherinelumb says:

    Ah Tea, the cure to all creative blocks!

    Interesting post – especially because I often fall foul of Block Number Two and tend to wander away for a nap or a walk or some TV. Sometimes I manage to work though it without even noticing, other times not so much.

    • davidmcgowan says:

      Just finishing a cup of tea right now, funnily enough! The other great way that I didn’t mention in the article is those morning when you wake well before your alarm and get up early to write. I was up at 6am today!

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